Flu season comes in like a lion and goes out like a lion calling in sick. For new parents, it’s a fraught time of year — a few fraught times of year actually — because disease represents an outsized danger for infants. The result? Social calendars get jettisoned and mom and dad adopt a sort of unsustainable defensive posture while hoping and praying they can keep diseases at bay. In truth, they might be able to if they adopt certain strategies. But there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to viruses.
“I would say that newborns, or babies under two months of age, should be kept away from crowds of people as much as possible,” advises Dr. Tanya Altmann, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of Baby and Toddler Basics. “Under two months of age, they don’t really have a well-developed immune system yet, and they can get very sick very quickly.”
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Flu Season and Kids
How to Keep Babies Healthy During Flu Season
- Two Months Old and Younger: Take extra care with very small babies – the diagnostic workup for a fever can be very invasive.
- Avoid Crowds and Daycare: Too many people – particularly too many toddlers, with their lax hygiene standards – can introduce some very nasty bugs to a newborn’s very new immune system.
- Hygiene for Everyone!: Parents, grandparents, siblings, visitors – everybody washes hands, everybody takes shoes off, everybody changes clothes if practical and nobody kisses the baby.
- Keep Symptoms Away: If family members or guests present symptoms, keep them away from the baby.
- Vaccination and Clean Living: Parents should take all reasonable measures to boost their baby’s immune system. Vaccinations are possible after six months of age.
- When Concerned, Talk to a Doctor: Calling them on the phone works, but parents needn’t be shy about going in.
Once babies have reached six months or so, they can receive the flu vaccine, although the first vaccination requires two doses administered a month apart. They may experience the typical side effects of vaccination — muscle soreness, fussiness, even a low-grade fever — but these are short-term and well worth the added protection the flu vaccination offers. No flu vaccination offers 100 percent protection, but they do minimize symptoms and can prevent secondary infections like pneumonia.
Parents can also boost their child’s immune system in other ways — via breastfeeding (if that’s an option) or skin-to-skin contact. Parents may be surprised that mere contact can affect the baby’s immune system, but the immune system starts to do all sorts of odd stuff when a baby enters the family.
Influenza can be very rough on an infant under two months old, and not necessarily from the symptoms. Even getting to a diagnosis, it turns out, can be pretty rough in its own right. The flu isn’t the only player in town. RSV, colds, and other viruses can compromise a baby’s breathing. “If there is a fever or a sign of infection, we do a pretty comprehensive workup,” says Altmann. “It involves drawing blood, putting catheters in and doing x-rays, just because we want to make sure where that fever is coming from.”
Regular sleep and good nutrition are also important. If the baby is on solid foods, fresh fruits and vegetables and good protein choices can also boost their immune performance.
Keeping babies away from crowds doesn’t mean keeping them in a bubble — with the right precautions, it’s okay to take them outside to enjoy the world. And, of course, keeping an infant at home isn’t a sure thing, either. Play areas, daycares, and schools tend to harbor all sorts of nasty bugs, and older siblings are going to bring those bugs home with them. There is, however, a way to keep them at bay with a little diligence. And that starts with thinking about what other people, specifically older kids, are bringing into your home.
“What I usually do is try to have those toddlers and preschoolers change their clothes and wash their hands when they get home,” suggests Altmann. “Then I teach them to kiss the top of the baby’s head, instead of the hands or the feet, because babies are always putting their hands and feet in their mouth.”
Chances are, despite parents’ best efforts, that older sibling is going to catch a cold or the flu. In such cases, parents can still protect newborns or infants by keeping them in a sort of in-home quarantine. The sick kid stays out of the baby’s play area, and the baby – well, the baby can’t really go anywhere. Some 1-year-olds may be moving around the house, but they can still be stymied by baby gates. And even babies as young as two months can take modified doses of Tamiflu after they have been exposed and are just starting to present symptoms. They’ll need to be closely monitored, however.
“If your child does get a fever, runny nose, or a cough, it’s important to know the signs that you do need to see your pediatrician,” cautions Altmann. “Any trouble breathing, decreased fluid intake, fewer wet diapers, or anything you are nervous about or uncomfortable, make sure you have your baby checked by the pediatrician.”